Teaching vs home-making: A fine balance?

Indira Vijaysimha

Women often get into teaching because it seems to be a career option that is compatible with their other roles and responsibilities. Of course, this is not the only reason why women choose teaching; they cite other reasons such as the possibility of going deeper into a subject, the opportunity to interact with children and the nobility of the teaching profession. Although many women mention their liking for working with children or youngsters as sources of satisfaction in their work, it doesn’t seem to be the main reason for choosing a teaching career. A widely held notion among teachers in all school types is that the work of teaching is especially suited for women because it allows them to perform their socially approved role as homemakers and caregivers while also doing a ‘respectable job’ that places relatively limited demands in terms of time spent outside the home.

Why women choose to teach
Career-minded women often face family pressures to choose a job that is seen as suitable or respectable for women and also one that is compatible with their responsibilities as mother, wife and homemaker. Men do not face similar pressures in their choice of career and usually don’t have to think of domestic chores and care of family members while choosing a career. Even without overt family pressure, women themselves think of teaching as a job that will allow them to earn an income and at the same time be devoted to the family. As Arati who taught biology said:

“I did my M.Sc. and B.Ed and worked for one year teaching (before getting married). I had no idea that I could work in an agro-based company. If we have to do night shift far away from the house, or work in some lab far away, then how to manage? Food, health and education of my children are most important to me in the world.”

Arati’s case illustrates the element of constraint in the decisions of many women who come into teaching for its compatibility with marriage and child rearing. The reasons she articulated represented some of the reasons that account for the fact that many women who could have opted for alternate career choices end up in teaching. This appears to be especially true for women teachers in secondary schools, as they are graduates and could have taken further studies or other careers.

Savita and Girija, teaching at the government girls’ high school, opted for teaching after getting married and moving to Bangalore from their native villages in Hassan district. Savita first joined a government department, but later switched to teaching so that her work timings and holidays would coincide with those of her school-going daughter. Meena, Maya and Arati who were post-graduate teachers in private schools, had changed work places several times as they followed their husbands from city to city. Primacy is given to the husband’s career and the women keep adjusting to new school environments each time they move. In Meena’s case, career breaks had also occurred due to responsibilities related to child-birth and family illnesses. Maya gave up working on her doctorate to bring up her baby daughter and said that she did not regret her decision.

The family’s expectations places limitations on women’s career choices and teaching is clearly an acceptable profession and one into which women are encouraged. In the case of women teaching in government primary schools, it is commonly seen as the only suitable way for a girl to earn. After completing secondary school, teaching in a government school is seen as a respectable and desirable choice of livelihood, especially for a girl. As these teachers who have been teaching in primary school for over 25 years say, “Teaching is very good, suitable for women.” (Shanta); “I did not consider other jobs; I did training and joined this job only.” (Vijaya)

In some families, if the daughter is an academic achiever, the only career considered suitable for her is teaching. Sairabano, a high school mathematics teacher, mentioned that she was the only woman in her extended family who worked outside the home. Neither her sister who had done M.Sc, nor her sister-in-law who had completed a Bachelor of Computer Applications had taken up a job. Sairabano had support from her parents as well as in-laws to continue her job as a government high schoolteacher, and could thus resist her husband’s wishes that she give it up.

However, sometimes, family support for a woman’s career aspirations can be seen as restrictive, as in the case of Vimala:

“First I didn’t want to be a teacher. But my father forced me. After B.Sc, I developed an interest in microbiology. That’s why even after my B.Ed, I also did M.Sc. But once again I joined here (Government high school).”

The narratives of women teachers point to the situation that many urban women may be in, of needing and wanting to contribute to the family income, and yet as women, only being able to do so in certain socially acceptable ways. Teaching may be considered a suitable profession, one that could be combined with other responsibilities. The narratives of teachers from different schools were essentially similar in this respect. Interestingly, many teachers in government schools spoke of parental pressure as being instrumental in their career choice. On the other hand, several teachers in private schools mentioned that they had self-selected their careers as it helped them combine their career and maternal responsibilities. For middle class women, teaching is perceived to be a safe and easy option that helps in earning an income in a socially acceptable way. It also provides them an opportunity to come into the public arena, outside their homes, which may constitute a significant shift in gender relations within the family.

Fulfilling lives or impossible fiction?
So can we presume that these women have found the happy balance between home and career, between work and family? Notions of impossibility, tension and contradiction in the experiences of women teachers are richly documented in literature from North America and Europe. Walkerdine (1990) refers to the ‘impossible fiction’ of being a woman teacher in today’s society, due to the tensions and contradictions that are inherent in an identity that asserts power, status and commands respect (teacher), at the same time that speaks of subordination, marginalization and repression (women). Kirk (2008) in her study of women teachers in Pakistan wrote about three distinct reasons for women teaching that seem to co-exist. First, there is the notion of teaching as a noble profession and though this notion may no longer be held strongly, it clearly retains some value and may be an account into which women invest and gain an important sense of the significance of their work. The second reason was the belief that women will have a natural ability to teach younger children. As feminist scholars have critiqued, any ‘comparative advantage’ that women may have in caring for young children is a somewhat problematic, essentialising discourse that can become a means of limiting the range of professional opportunities open to women. “Taking up and enacting such a discourse may, on the one hand, represent an act of agency for individual women, inserting themselves into a professional domain that does command some respect and status. Yet, it remains an agency that is circumscribed by traditional gender roles” (Kirk 2008: p 65).

The third reason for becoming a teacher, is one of family expectations and perhaps limitations; teaching is clearly an acceptable profession and one into which women are encouraged. In the case of government primary school teachers, teaching was seen as the only suitable way for a girl to earn. Often, family circumstances made it necessary for the girl to bring in an income rather than study further, but family values restricted the girl’s choice of careers.

These three ideas – (i) of teaching being a noble profession; (ii) of the work being in accord with women’s natural abilities and (iii) of being in a career that was aligned with family expectations – contain inherent tensions between them and could be understood as a reflection of the tensions between quite different perceptions of women teachers in the given context. “For the woman teacher, they are all three very viable discursive resources from which she constructs her story of becoming a woman teacher.” (Kirk 2008: p.66)

No support for professional development
In most schools teachers are expected to engage classes almost continually during their working hours. The few ‘free periods’ that teachers have are usually taken up with record keeping, report writing and sundry other tasks leaving no time for lesson preparation or professional development activities that require study. Since professional development workshops for teachers typically ignore the realities of women teachers’ lives and do not provide child care, women teachers themselves are often reluctant to take them up, especially if they feel that these will impinge on their household responsibilities or mean staying away from young children.

Not surprisingly, in the process of trying to balance both worlds, women often get excluded from positions of power within the school and wield little influence on the administration and ethos of the school. As one proceeds upwards in terms of professional growth the proportion of women steadily decreases. Women head-teachers and principals themselves often subscribe to gendered notions about work and career. The few women in positions of power tend to be older with lesser family responsibilities.

Women teachers hardly get time for leisure on weekdays or even during weekends. They said that they did shopping, prepared special food for the family, looked after elder family members, attended family functions, finished sundry household chores and prepared for the week ahead during weekends. Although a few teachers reported that they wrote notes of lessons, prepared for their classes at home, or carried student notebooks home for correction, for the majority of women teachers, household chores prevented them from attending to teaching related work after school hours. This accords with the women’s reasons for choosing to work in teaching since the perception is that it will make less demands on their time and energy compared to other paid work/occupations.

Thus families, society and individual women teachers, all consider teaching as an option for women whose primary responsibility is still seen to revolve around home and family. Schools, however, do not organize work keeping in mind women teachers’ double responsibility. The call for greater professionalism in teaching and the demands for continuous professional development without considering the nature of women’s life worlds often create a great deal of tension prompting some women to opt out of teaching altogether. Arati eventually stopped teaching because of “tension at home – too much work – keep food ready also and coach my son for his studies also, and mother-in-law is not cooperative.”

Other women manage to stay on in the profession, but are forced to make adjustments and compromises which affect both their working and home lives. As Janet put it, “I feel I am not doing enough – I should prepare a lot for my classes, but if I give more time to this at home my family suffers.” The following incident captures the feeling of dissatisfaction experienced by women teachers.

On reading a student’s stated ambition “want to become a teacher” in the autograph book, Savitri (a private school teacher) burst out “Which idiot has written that?” She said she was surprised that any student would want to become a teacher and felt that this particular girl must have been ignorant of the realities of a teacher’s life where the work was hard and the pay was low.

Policy must consider the realities of women teachers’ lives
In the face of globalization, all nations are seeking to power the engines of growth through education, and educational reforms are sweeping the globe, resulting in more and newer things being expected from schools. These circumstances have created many new and unforeseen demands on teachers. At the same time the work of teaching is increasingly being done by women. There has been a phenomenal increase in the total number of women teachers as well as in their relative proportion in post- independent India. Women teachers who constituted just 21.7 per cent of the total teacher population till just over a decade ago may soon outnumber their male counterparts in Indian schools with the overall percentage of women teachers reaching almost 45 per cent, and crossing the fifty per cent mark in 13 states of the country.

Describing it as a very positive sign, a senior official in the human resources development (HRD) ministry said, “Increased participation of female teachers in school education will go a long way in attracting and retaining girl students in the school system.” This statement reflects the general focus of policymakers – namely the child or more specifically the girl child. While women teachers are considered instrumental in facilitating girls’ education and their impact on girls’ education has been recognized, the lived experiences of these teachers rarely enter the policy discourse. The voices of teachers, especially of the women, are not heard. Research and policy discourse positions teachers as agents of social change, as implementers of programme directives, without considering the ways in which teachers are differently positioned in their work and lives (Sriprakash 2011). To empower women teachers and to bring equitable status, it is important that the teachers’ roles, their lives, their perception, their problems and voices are understood and heard. Only when women teachers are truly empowered will education play a transformative role rather than serving as a means of reproducing existing gender disparities, albeit in different guises. Women teachers’ perceptions about their career seems to reflect certain stereotypical ideas about women’s roles and inevitably these messages and their inherent contradictions will affect their beliefs about teaching and self-construct as professionals. Their gendered notions about work and career choices will also be conveyed to future generations of students unless interrogated and mediated by a different imagination.

In order to fulfil the transformative role that women teachers are expected to play in girls’ education, the professional training of teachers must provide opportunities to interrogate the commonly held notions of women’s work on the one hand and the notion of teaching as work that demands a lower degree of engagement on the other. Schools and educational policies must also take cognisance of the lived realities of women’s lives and their legitimate need to nurture children and family by providing day care facilities for teachers’ children, especially during professional training workshops and by reducing the number of direct instruction hours required of a teacher in order to provide space for reflection and planning.

Kirk, J, ed. (2008): Women Teaching in South Asia, (Sage) : 3-33, 56-86
Sriprakash, Aarati (2011): Being a teacher in contexts of change: Education reform and the repositioning of teachers’ work in India, Contemporary education dialogue, Vol.8 (1): 5-31
Walkerdine, Valerie (1990): Schoolgirl Fictions (New York and London: Verso).

Some portions of this paper were included in a joint presentation titled “Impossible Fictions or Fulfilling Lives” in the Comparative Education Society of India, Annual Conference, November 2011. The presentation was made jointly along with S. Indumathi.

The author is the founder-trustee of Poorna Learning Centre in Bangalore – an alternative school that emerged out of her experiences as a teacher and mother. She is currently teaching at Azim Premji University and would love to hear from the readers of Teacher Plus. She can be reached at indira@apu.edu.in.

All names used in this article are fictitious to protect the identities of the actual teachers who are quoted.

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